What Happens to Old Luddites?

You remember the Luddites, those followers of Ned “King” Ludd. They were those guys who, way back in 1811, objected to the modernization being wrought by the Industrial Revolution. Specifically, they were skilled weavers who were upset about new looms that would put many of them out of business. Sometimes they went to the mill and smashed the new looms.

But in the end it was like fighting the tide. Just as they feared, many lost their jobs. This has never changed. Today, new improvements continue to make some jobs irrelevant. Whatever became of the Linotype operators, the typing pool?

The Luddite fallacy is that mechanization
will make everyone richer.

Today there are manufacturing plants that can operate 24 hours a day in the dark—or at least that’s the goal—because there are no people in them, only robots and other machines.

The Luddite fallacy is the belief that replacement of workers with mechanization will improve efficiency, driving prices down and demand up. Thus the overall effect will be demand for additional workers and more income for all. It’s not so, and the fears of those about to be displaced are very real. The benefits tend to fall on those who already have a lot of money. Sound familiar? Yet, over time, working conditions have improved. Why is that?

For now, I’ll call everyone who is displaced a Luddite, even if he doesn’t smash looms. Bringing it closer to home with a shorter time frame, consider the enlightening chart below, from the Economic Policy Institute, which shows the falling wages of male and female workers over the past four decades, in which technology has changed work radically. Fortunately, when we compare the lives of workers of 1811 with ours today, we are still better off than they were.

Part of it is due to the fact that the modern world has brought a deluge of new developments such as vaccination that have done away with so many of life’s scourges, and things like national improvements in transportation and communication where new workers were needed. Every modernization brings new kinds of work, new jobs, and other life improvements, and this has kept things reasonable.

The benefits tend to fall on those
who already have a lot of money.
Sound familiar?

But probably the most important changes have been in the work world itself, mostly brought about by labor unions. We no longer work 12-16 hours a day, six or seven days a week. Our work week is now below 40 hours, and we work five days a week as the norm. And we have a paid vacation, stingy as it is in the US, compared to elsewhere. (And there’s a good argument to be made that our work week is still too long.)

So where have all the Luddites gone? Here’s my take:

Every time there’s worker displacement because of modernization, a few benefit, but most lose out, taking jobs with lower pay if they can find them. There’s a lot of that happening today. At the same time, new kinds of work are created, to be done by younger people with the latest training. Consider just the vast numbers employed in computer technology, in information management, or any of the peripheral businesses. None of these existed a few decades ago. They amount to many millions of jobs, but even in the face of this, wages are falling overall. And displacement happens all the time within the information industry. If you aren’t adept at writing the very latest code, like the younger people, look for a new line of work, particularly if you are over 4o. For the most part, it is the next generation of workers who benefit, and soon they themselves will be in danger of displacement from the next new thing.

So where have all the Luddites gone?

It seems to me that the general improvements we have seen in our lives help to mitigate the losses we experience from job displacement. But that’s only on average. Those Luddites who lose out find their lives diminished either a little or a lot. It’s a complex world, a constant struggle to maintain recognition of the value of work of all kinds, while realizing that Luddite-ism is a lost cause.

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Published in: on 2012/02/25 at 2:12 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Not disagreeing, John, but here is a question: leaving out the matter of working conditions, is it better for Apple to outsource its production to factories in China, employing nearly a million workers, or to build fully automated factories in the US to produce the same goods that would employ, say four or five hundred workers?

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  2. There’s no easy answer. I was surprised to learn that virtually all Apple products made in China are made by hand, not by robots.

    I think we in the US have been too quick to ship our work overseas, but keeping some of it here takes a lot of ingenuity.

    When competing with underpaid workers overseas, we cannot expect the good union jobs of the 60s, but neither should CEOs expect the outlandish pay they get. The increasing inequality makes people angry, very angry.

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